Mar 18 2016

Interview with Violinist Chen Zhao of the San Francisco Symphony


I spoke to Chen Zhao recently, who plays violin in the San Francisco Symphony, on practicing, his musical inspirations, and his favorite music. Chen will be performing Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante at Davies Symphony Hall on May 15, 2016: Tickets and more information.
-Alicia Castaneda

AC: What does your ideal practice routine look like?

CZ: When I was a kid, my two uncles supervised my practice time. In high school, because of all the homework, I was only able to practice 2 - 3 hours a day. At Curtis, I had a lot more time to practice, so I did 4 - 6 hours in addition to chamber music and orchestra rehearsals. I usually start with scales, then work on difficult passages of the pieces that I am working on, then finally playing through the entire pieces. 

AC: What players did you look up to when you were a student? (Or do you look up to now?)
CZ: Arnold Steinhardt, Itzhak Perlman, Vadim Repin, David Oistrakh, Camilla Wicks, Lisa Batiashvili, and Vadim Gluzman. As for old recordings, I especially enjoy listening to Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Toscha Seidel, Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, Vasa Prihoda, Fritz Kreisler, and Bronislaw Huberman.

AC: What is one of the best pieces of advice you have received from a teacher? 
CZ: Camilla Wicks taught me to pay attention to all the little notes in the music, which gives rhythm, clarity, and style to the phrase. Michael Tree taught me to do finger extensions instead of always shifting.  Toby Appel cured my bow shake in one lesson, with a simple bow exercise. 

AC: What advice would you give your 16-year-old self? 
CZ: Practice and fix things that you are not good at. 

AC: If you could do anything differently on your career path, what would you change? 
CZ: In the last 10 years, I have felt that violin playing has been getting easier for me. I only wish it had happened sooner!

AC: What techniques do you use to get yourself through those times when you just don’t want to practice? 
CZ: Go for a nature walk, or a nice drive somewhere that I haven't been to, for inspiration.  

AC: Describe the most memorable performance you have given or been a part of. 
CZ: My very first Carnegie Hall performance was playing the Schubert “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet with the New York String Seminar Orchestra under Alexander Schneider. I absolutely remember every moment of that Christmas week in NYC; it was magical and inspiring.

AC: Do you have any special routines before you get ready for a performance?
CZ: I try not to play so much the day before an important concert or recital.  I find that I play much better that way. 

AC: What purchase has most influenced your playing?
CZ: My J.B. Vuillaume violin, which has defined my musical voice for the past 12 years.

AC: Can you share a story about your Jay Haide violin? 
CZ: When Jay [Ifshin] first showed me the violin, I couldn’t believe how good it sounded. I immediately purchased the violin after playing on it for just 15 minutes. It is very difficult to find a good sounding instrument nowadays and nothing comes even close to the quality of the sound and the beautiful workmanship of these Jay Haide violins.

AC: If you could only perform one piece for the rest of your career, what would it be? 
CZ: My favorite piece changes daily, I couldn’t live with just one piece.

AC: Your career is playing classical music. What other types of music do you enjoy playing or listening to? 
CZ: I enjoy listening to jazz musicians such as Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and various pop artists.

AC: How do you see the future of classical music changing over the next 25 years? Do you think it’s on a good path? 
CZ: I can't predict the future. I spend a lot of time teaching and coaching young talented musicians every week, and feel that passing on our traditions is the best way to ensure a following in classical music in the future.

Violinist Chen Zhao joined the San Francisco Symphony in August 2000.  As a member of the that orchestra, he has participated in performances of Mahler’s symphonies that have been recorded for the Symphony’s own label, SFS Media, and in performances of music by Beethoven, Berlioz, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky that have been recorded for several Keeping Score Films. Chen has toured throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and has performed at prestigious festivals such as the Ravinia, La Jolla, Evian, Lucerne, and the BBC Proms. He has appeared as a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony, Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Oslo Chamber Orchestra, and Stanford Symphony Orchestra. A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Shanghai Conservatory of Music, his teachers include Camilla Wicks, Felix Galimir, and Heiichiro Ohyama.  Chen is currently on faculty at the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, SF Conservatory of Music, and regularly coaches with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra.